GBQ has an unusual tagline, especially for an accounting firm: “Entrepreneurial spirit. Independent expertise.” And it’s not just a tagline. This helps explain how GBQ has increased its revenue year after year to record levels. It’s a group I’ve worked with in the past, but I wanted to know from Darci, “How does GBQ do it?”
Here’s what she told me.
1. Invested in marketing
“We invested heavily in a marketing department and got really focused on how we were presenting ourselves to the public,” she said. “Today, that marketing machine generates an immense amount of publicity and name recognition for us that has benefited us across many different places, not just in gaining new clients, but in adding credibility with those clients that already work with us, community credibility, and pride of belonging for those that work here, which helps with talent acquisition and retention. So, that has been really significant.”
2. Hired professional business development people
“We also hired professional business development people to generate relationships,” Congrove said. “A lot of accounting firms don’t do that because they believe only accountants can sell accounting work. But what we have found is that our people in those positions are not ‘selling;’ they are opening doors for us to have conversations with people — which has worked. We’ll give them a hot topic, something like new tax legislation, and have them call a list of people with whom they have been developing relationships. You never know which topic is going to hit someone so they say, ‘Yes, I want that meeting.’ That has turned into a lot of work, particularly for the more unusual things that we do.”
3. Hired experienced people
“Another thing we have done,” Congrove said, “is to hire very experienced people who can be market makers, augment something we are already doing, or add something new. But it takes patience because you have to take the short-term profitability hit understanding that these people have a lot of potential even though they come with non-compete agreements and start from scratch. But we’ve had some really good success bringing senior people in at the director and partner level, and that’s something we continue to do.”
4. Hired a growth strategy consultant to drive organic growth
“We were contemplating developing a strategic plan to double the size of the firm and came up with a lot of good ideas about how to do that, but, ultimately, most of the ideas were around how to do what we were already doing better as opposed to how we can add something new,” Congrove said. “We realized that sitting in our offices trying to make up lists of things that we could sell probably wasn’t the right approach. That’s when we reached out to you to help us figure out what people wanted to buy rather than what we wanted to sell. That project was very eye-opening because it helped us get outside of our own heads and think more broadly from the customers’ point of view.
“One of the most important things that came out of the work with you – that enabled us to create new services and revenue – was a shift in our mentality,” she said. “We went from focusing on what we know how to do, to what clients are trying to get done. Instead of saying ‘Here’s the audit report,’ now we ask, ‘What is the client trying to get done with the audit report, and how can we provide good business advice along with that work product?’ That gave us a different perspective than we had before.”
5. Geographic expansion through acquisitions
“We also invested in geographic expansion,” Congrove said, “although the jury is still out on that since these are recent transactions. There are opportunities for acquisition in the accounting world, and across all businesses, because baby boomers are retiring. That’s given us the opportunity to look at deals to take us to other cities. It’s the first time in our history that we have done that, so there are a lot of growing pains.
“We had a whole giant checklist of things that we were going to do when we acquired an accounting firm in Cincinnati a few years ago, our first. Six months in, we revised the checklist with the input from the people that worked there, and then, 12 months later, we did some more revisions and continued to refine it. We think there is viability to doing more of this, but we want to do it more effectively. In particular, I think we have learned a lot about integration and getting teams on board early. The big lesson is that it takes three times as much time as you anticipate.”
6. Service expansion through acquisitions
“More recently, we invested in two new firms – an accounting staffing firm and a business technology/cybersecurity service firm – that are new services for us,” Congrove said. “We folded them into our Columbus headquarters office. In each case there were four people in each of those businesses, so taking four people and folding them into a 150 that are already here causes the four to quickly acclimate into the culture of the whole. It’s easier to solve problems because they are here.
“Not that there haven’t been any bumps,” she said, “but what we have found with each of those deals is that we have an immense reach of referrals and existing clients and friends of the firm, and being able to push these new services into that channel is a pretty quick and easy thing to do. And it goes both ways through their networks as well.”
(A version of this article initially appeared in The Business Journals, August 25th, 2017)